I got into my car after an afternoon showing of Whiplash and looked down at my hands. During the movie’s runtime, I had bitten down a few of my fingernails. My right thumb was bleeding. I also realized that my hands were trembling a little. I took a deep, shuddering breath and laughed at myself. I felt like I was having a band nerd’s equivalent of a Vietnam flashback. Maybe Whiplash ought to come with a trigger warning for former band students.
The film follows the progress of Andrew (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old drummer starting his first semester at one of the finest music schools in the country. He squeaks into the top band and comes under the tutelage of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), whose teaching philosophy can be boiled down to this line: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job.’”
As a member of the top band, Andrew experiences firsthand the kind of abuse and pressure his fellow musicians endure in order to please their acerbic director. Fletcher throws chairs, curses out his students, and drives them to play until blood and sweat coats their instruments. Andrew pushes himself and pushes himself, filling every moment of his spare time with more practice. Eventually, he reaches a breaking point and must decide whether or not to follow the path Fletcher has laid out for him.
The movie’s emotion is incredibly vivid and captivating. What made it all the more enthralling for me was that I was seeing very familiar situations up on the big screen. Whiplash is brimming with little moments that I’m sure many band members have experienced themselves. I remember the anxiety that gripped me when the director would go down the line, player by player, to find out who was out of tune. I remember the frustration when the director brought rehearsal to a halt because a group of players was having difficulties with a particular passage. I remember the resentment I felt for those players as the director profusely apologized for wasting the rest of the band’s time. I remember fighting back tears of humiliation after being individually called out in front of my peers. Whiplash pushes these situations beyond what most students actually experience, but the visceral emotion in these scenes is true to life.
Whipash’s director Damien Chazelle has said that a band director he had at Harvard inspired Fletcher’s character. This explains Fletcher’s depth and the veracity of the complex relationship between band students and their instructor. The director subjects his students to grueling hours of practice but leads them to achieve incredible musical feats. The students at times fear and resent the source of their misery, but at the same time, they are driven to prove themselves to the director and eagerly seek out his praise. Fletcher is verbally and even physically abusive to his students but he also gets results—his band is among the best in the nation. Therein lies the question that the film raises: how far is too far? Do the ends justify the means? Are tortuous struggles simply the price we must pay to achieve true greatness?
On top of all that emotional and philosophical complexity, Whiplash is an extremely well-made movie. It’s shot to maximize the impact of the music—perfectly timed pans and cuts underscore the tension behind every musical entrance. And the performances are flawless. Teller carries the film’s passion with every drumbeat and Simmons embodies a fascinating character that, in less capable hands, would come off as an irredeemable monster.
It may be hard to believe that a character-driven flick about a studio band keeps audience members on the edge of their seats, but go see Whiplash and you’ll understand.